EPA Missing an Opportunity to Improve Water Quality Reports

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, water utilities are required to provide annual reports on the quality of the drinking water they provide to consumers. These reports, attached to a customer’s water bill, are called Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs); they contain information on potential contaminants in the water, any violations of water quality standards, and the sources of the water supply. Unfortunately, the reports are overly technical and most people have a hard time understanding if the cleanliness of their water is improving or declining.

EPA began reviewing the rule on water quality reports last year as part of its retrospective review of rules ordered by the Obama administration in January 2011. Water utilities have been complaining about the cost of sending out reports to their customers for some time, and on Sept. 11, EPA released a notice of a public meeting and request for public comments on a new proposal that would allow water utilities to electronically deliver water quality reports to the public. The proposal fails to provide clear standards for electronic delivery, and the proposed changes could actually reduce public access to the information on local water supplies required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Instead of sending out the full report to citizens, the proposal could allow water companies to just print web addresses on customer water bills to direct them to a website with the water quality information. There are two problems with this approach. First, if the links are buried in the fine print of a routine water bill, very few people are likely to notice the link and visit the site. Second, almost a third of American households are still without at-home broadband Internet access; those without access are likely to reside in low-income urban neighborhoods and rural areas. Thus, those citizens unable to easily track information about the quality of their water supplies are exactly the populations we would expect to be most at risk of having contaminants in their water.

Since the Safe Drinking Water Act requires these water quality reports to be "directly delivered" to all customers, this proposal would seem to violate a key provision of the act. While we do believe that all water companies should be required to post water quality reports online, until every household in American has Internet access at home, we don’t believe utilities should be able to void the requirement to add information to customer bills once a year.

The Real Issue: Make the Reports Easier to Understand

While EPA is focused on responding to industry complaints, the agency has missed the key problem with the reports: the lax design standards and resulting difficulty for the public to understand the information contained within them. This review, intended to improve outdated and underperforming regulations, is the perfect opportunity for EPA to improve the readability of the reports. Staff could design a standard template and test it with the lay public to ensure people understand what it means. EPA could also develop visual indicators in a kind of simplified dashboard display. EPA already uses straightforward indicators that facilitate a better understanding of complex information, like color-coded air quality warnings, miles-per-gallon ratings for cars, and energy usage labels for appliances (with the Department of Energy). Such indicators should be adapted to measures of water quality.

To achieve these reforms, EPA would need to revise the CCR rule and update the report templates that water systems use. It should also assess compliance with the rule and consider ways to ensure water utilities are consistently delivering accurate and accessible information to the American people. Finally, EPA should conduct a public education campaign to raise public awareness about the reports so consumers understand why this information is important to them.

Take Action: Tell the EPA to Standardize and Simplify Water Quality Reports and Deliver Information to Consumers By Post and Online.

You can take action by urging the EPA to make the reports more accessible to you and your family and telling the EPA not to weaken access to the Consumer Confidence Reports. The agency is accepting comments until Oct. 11.

Image by flickr user Joost Nelissen, used under a Creative Commons license.

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